Lafayette and Justice
August Landmesser was one man in a crowd of one hundred gathered in a shipyard at Hamburg, Germany, 1936. All about him arms were raised in “Heil Hitler” fealty. Except his. Instead, his arms were folded across his chest, creating an obvious discontinuity in the chorus line. This is Isabel Wilkerson’s prologue to “Caste.”
This image is striking for three reasons.
First, it is protest, an objection to the tide of unreason. Such a simple gesture, but its power is its subtlety. Inveighing, the vocal equivalent of flailing, would have subordinated principle to theater. Besides, hormones at crest in a crowd make that crowd a volatile, vengeful handful of humanity, unreceptive to contrarian conceits. They will hurt you.
Second, the courage it displays. Aristotle says of all the cardinal virtues—prudence, temperance, courage, and justice—courage leads, because it installs in the others the backbone of authority.
Third, and most importantly, it is a declaration of active participation in what Harvard Professor Michael Sandel calls the politics of moral engagement. It is, in one word, about justice. Those arms folded symbolize the three ideas around which justice revolves: maximizing welfare, respecting freedom, and promoting virtue. Justice is about how people should treat one another.
Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert, Marquis de Lafayette—his mother invoked as protective guild a flourish of patron saints as namesakes—saw justice walking, and at a very tender age. As it turned out, it was his grandmother.
His father died at the Battle of Minden, making Lafayette a Marquis before he was two years old. His mother, in order to improve her son’s prospects, spent most of her time at Paris working her way into the royal orbit of King Louis XV. She saw her son only a few months out of the year.
Lafayette spent his first ten years in the Auvergne, south central France, at his ancestral home Chateau de Chavaniac. He had free range of volcanic-rock-carpeted mountains, no doubt cultivating there what would become his passion for liberty.
He was raised by three women. “They were fine ladies, these three,” says biographer Louis Gottschalk.
Marguerite-Madeleine du Motier was the elder of his two aunts. She never married because she could not bring herself to leave home, the story goes, and her “extraordinary merit” was bestowed on educating her nephew. Her sister, Louise-Charlotte, was widowed with only one child and that child a year older than Lafayette. Louise-Charlotte and her daughter arrived at Chavaniac when Lafayette was four. Surely this blend of worthy women instilled in Lafayette not only an appreciation for women but an egalitarian spirit.
Marie-Catherine was his grandmother, widowed. Says Gottschalk: “She was the pride of the villages round about, renowned for her kindness and wisdom, and the little boy used to admire the gentle way in which she guided the villagers who came to her, sometimes at a distance of twenty leagues, for advice.” She purchased the privilege of interpreting the law (“droit de justice”) for peasants in the parish of Aurac and nearby. From his grandmother Lafayette learned that his legacy had to do with “virtue, merit, great qualities, good actions and beautiful works.” Lafayette’s sense of justice dictated community first, personal interest last.
Slavery, as an issue for discussion, would not have surfaced at Chavaniac. According to Professor Patrick Villiers, in 1777 the number of people of color in Nantes was 700; Tours, 59; Angers, 25; and in Orleans, 1. Besides, slavery in France was, officially at least, forbidden. On the other hand, in the American colonies in 1780 people of color were routine: in New England 14,400; the Middle Colonies 42,400; the Upper South 303,600; and the Lower South 208,800. When he landed on American shores at South Inlet, North Island, South Carolina, midnight, June 13, 1777, the first Americans Lafayette encountered were slaves. Travelling from Georgetown to Charleston to Philadelphia he could not help but take note; the paradox in the ideals for which independence was being fought was here at great odds.
Lafayette had strong feelings about slavery. He told James Madison in 1784 that his three top priorities were to see the Franco-American Alliance strong; to see the thirteen colonies united in a federal system that would protect them from piecemeal attack by European predators; and freedom for slaves. His relationship with James Armistead Lafayette, onetime slave turned double agent at Yorktown, no doubt influenced his attitude, and that story worthy of stage.
He proposed a blueprint for emancipation to George Washington, and in 1785 he proceeded to execute it on his own, only to have the specter of his own beheading and the ramp-up of the French Revolution bring it to an abrupt and, for him, heartrending halt.
He discussed with Thomas Jefferson the propriety of allowing slavery to expand West, Jefferson arguing it would do no harm, likely to evaporate into the great expanse of wildness and into the dust of the West. Lafayette took issue, holding that it would mushroom.
Lafayette arrived at Staten Island on Sunday, August 15, 1824, for a thirteen month, twenty-four state Farewell Tour. He had been invited by President James Monroe at the request of the Congress of the United States to be The Nation’s Guest. He was the last surviving Founding Father.
What to do, what to say, about slavery? Flail? Or stand tall, arms crossed?
Everywhere celebrations were wildly exuberant. Triumphal arches. Banquets. Speeches.
Fredericksburg, Charleston, and Savannah published notices asking citizens to keep slaves away.
Lafayette’s opinions were known, but still.
On September 10, 1824, he visited African Free School No. 2, on Mulberry Street, Manhattan. In front of 450 fellow students eleven year old prodigy James McCune Smith delivered a speech from memory. As recorded in the New York Commercial Advertiser: “General Lafayette. On behalf of myself and fellow-schoolmates may I be permitted to express our sincere and respectful gratitude to you for the condescension you have manifested this day in visiting this institution, which is one of the noblest specimens of New York philanthropy. Here, sir, you behold hundreds of the poor children of Africa sharing with those of a lighter hue in the blessings of education; and while it will be our pleasure to remember the great deeds you have done for America, it will be our delight also to cherish the memory of General Lafayette as a friend to African emancipation, and as a member of this institution.” Lafayette bowed in what was said to be graceful respect. “I thank you, my dear child,” he said.
James McCune Smith was denied admission to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College. Accepted at the University of Glasgow, he obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1835, master’s in 1836, and his medical degree in 1837. He returned to New York as America’s first university trained Black physician. He operated the first Black owned pharmacy at 93 West Broadway. Frederick Douglass called Smith “the single most important influence on my life.” On February 26, 1841, Smith delivered a lecture on the Haitian Revolution, describing how Lafayette in May, 1791, convinced the French National assembly to grant French citizenship and suffrage “to all people of color residing in the French colonies born of free parents.” Smith here highlighted Lafayette’s sense of justice.
Hannah Till was in charge of the officer’s mess at Lafayette’s headquarters at the time of the Battle of Yorktown. She lived at Philadelphia at the time of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour, 103 years old. Lafayette made a point of visiting her. Informed that she was in arrears on rent and in jeopardy of eviction, Lafayette quietly arranged for the debt to be paid. She commented on how kind he had been to everyone, and how he especially spoiled those who, though not wearing uniform, kept the army moving. She died when she was 105 years old.
One month later, October, 1824, he was greeted at Yorktown by a crowd of 15,000, a 45-foot arch at the site of Redoubt #10, and the well wishes of Governor James Pleasants. As his carriage passed throngs of cheering onlookers, he recognized in the crowd his friend James Armistead. Lafayette had given testimony on his behalf to the Virginia Assembly, and James was granted his freedom in 1787, thereafter calling himself James Lafayette. He was the spy who informed the Marquis of Cornwallis’s troop strength and his plans to fortify the deep water port at Yorktown. The Marquis called out to him by name and had the carriage stopped. He had suffered an injury to his left leg years ago; it had been poorly set, and now he limped. His cane was not a prop. Slowly, he made his way through the crowd and embraced the person who very well may have had as much to do with shaping his views on slavery and justice as anyone, excepting his grandmother.
In Columbia, South Carolina, at a reception in a private home, an elderly Black man pushed through to see Lafayette. As reported: “Lafayette turned, looked at him and remarked: “An old acquaintance; don’t tell me who it is.” The Negro advanced to the Marquis, and bowing, held out his hand and said, “Howdy, Mas’ Lafayette; how do you do, sir. You ‘member me?” “Yes, stop; don’t tell me your name. Ah! I have it. Pompey, belonging to General Buchanan, the first servant who waited on me when I came to America. When I landed at Georgetown I was taken first to the camp of General Buchanan, near there, and Pompey waited on me,” said he, as he shook warmly the old man’s hand. The nobleman called for a glass of champagne with Pompey, which that worthy took with great dignity. Then he put out his hand and said, “Good-bye, Mas’ Lafayette; we getting old—we’ll never meet again. God bless you.” They shook hands again. Pompey went out, mounted his pony, and started for his home.”
In April, 1825, he was in Chalmette, Louisiana, site of the Battle of New Orleans. He received a delegation from the Corps of the Men of Colour who fought at the Battle. From the New Orleans Courier: “The General received the men of colour with demonstrations of esteem and affection, and said to them: “Gentlemen, I have often during the War of Independence, seen African blood shed with honor in our ranks for the cause of the United States. I have learnt with the liveliest interest, how you answered to the appeal of General Jackson; what a glorious use you made of your arms for the defense of Louisiana. I cherish the sentiments of gratitude for your services, and of admiration for your valor. Accept those also of my personal friendship, and of the pleasure I shall always experience in meeting with you again.”
Lafayette was the Apostle of Liberty. It was his brand, the singular passion of his life; but no less considered was his concern for equality before the law. On July 11, 1789, three days before Bastille Day, he stood before the French National Constituent Assembly with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This was his own composition and he was rightly proud. Article One reads: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”
His idea of justice, the scales of balance between liberty and equality, were wholly in the camp of “the common good.” Maximizing welfare, as pure utilitarianism, he would have found too calculating. Respecting freedom to the point of laissez-faire individualism, as pure libertarianism, he would, I think, have found narrow and self-absorbed.
His philosophy purloined from each of these opposing views of justice. The second sentence of Article One is rarely quoted; but it gives insight: “Social distinction can be founded only on the common good.” Which is to say, how people are treated matters. Respect and reciprocity matter. He thought civic ideals worth promoting. Notions of community and solidarity he found compelling.
Professor Olga Anna Duhl of Lafayette College sums it up: “Most significantly, he remained throughout his life a fervent advocate of the abolition of slavery and the African slave trade, earning the recognition of prominent British abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, as ‘A true friend of the cause.’”